Tag Archives: Minnesota

Big Ten West spring football review

After a bit of a delay for some NFL draft coverage, we have finally wrapped up our spring review for Big Ten football at BuckeyeSports.com. Big Ten logo

Earlier we took a look at the East. Now comes the West, which should have an interesting race.

Iowa and Minnesota both showed great improvement last season while Nebraska and Wisconsin have questions but remain contenders.  Continue reading

A Last Look at the Big Ten Bowls

Earlier, I took an overview of the Big Ten and what it needs to bounce back from a very poor 2012 football season. I take a lot more from the regular season than the bowls, but another sub-.500 record in the postseason certainly doesn’t help the cause of the league.

As far as the games themselves, I’m not sure we learned a whole lot.

  • The 2013 Capital One Bowl was really a quintessential 2012 Nebraska performance as the Cornhuskers gained 443 yards of offense but allowed 146 more than that. They put up 31 points (including an interception returned for a touchdown) but lost by two touchdowns. In short, the offense and defense were both spectacular, one good and one bad. I’d say personnel is the main explanation on both sides – Taylor Martinez progressed significantly (but still has more room to improve even more as a senior) and Nader Abdallah stepped up in the wake of I-back Rex Burkhead’s injury-plagued senior campaign. Aside from Burkhead (whom they’ve shown they can live without), the only real weapons they lose are a pair of talented tight ends, so the offense should continue to hum. Defensively, a bunch of seniors are walking out the door, but I’m not sure that is a bad thing. The talent has steadily dropped on that unit for three consecutive years, and the production has followed. Some new blood could be good, although I would rate Will Compton, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin as players who will be missed. I also think the season and the game demonstrated the double-edged sword that is the multifaceted Bo Pelini (and coordinator John Papuchis) defense. A two-gap defensive line and pattern reading secondary gives the scheme a lot of flexibility, but it also leaves a lot of potential seams that can burst in the case of bad communication. To make matters worse, I don’t think Nebraska had enough guys with the talent to erase mistakes.
  • Michigan’s defensive numbers were largely a mirage. I like their young linebackers a lot, but the defensive line needs a serious upgrade. The secondary was better than it had been two years ago, but that doesn’t say much. The gaudy numbers they had as a secondary in the regular season were mostly a result of the weakness of Big Ten passing games and the weakness of the Michigan defense of line. Teams were plenty happy to run on the Wolverines until they were stopped. I thought Al Borges bounced back with a better game plan against South Carolina and he did, although it could have used some more Denard Robinson. Devin Gardner has a lot of talent, but he is still raw. Michigan has a playmaking wide receiver in Jeremy Gallon, but it remains to be seen if anyone else will step up to join him. Who knows if they will find a playmaker in the backfield, but the offensive line could be a major liability. It will definitely be young. Getting Taylor Lewan back could be a good start, but he’s not actually as productive as his accolades would indicate. That’s probably why the Michigan coaching staff barely gave him any chances to match up one-on-one with Jadeveon Clowney, who only played about half his team’s snaps anyway.
  • I suppose we learned Michigan State does not have unending confidence in Andrew Maxwell, but I guess that shouldn’t be a shock after the season he had. Of course he was made a captain before the season started. Are young quarterback in the expected to struggle, but I think the larger issue was with play calling that did not help them out. Of course, it’s hard to call plays when you can’t block anybody. The Spartans just have to get better up front if they want to be good enough to be an upper-echelon team. They should continue to be very good on defense next year even with the loss of William Gholston early to the pros. Depth is very good on the defensive line for MSU.
  • Northwestern sucked it up and got it done, actually riding a hot start to a postseason victory for a change. The Wildcats’ woeful secondary feasted on Mississippi State for four interceptions and showed some playmaking ability with six tackles for loss, including three sacks. Kain Colter and Venric Mark are wonderful skill players around whom to build an offense, but the offensive line started three seniors who will be missed. The quarterback rotation seems to need some bugs worked out, but a win is a win, especially considering the program’s postseason history.
  • Minnesota showed that it at least belonged in a bowl (for what that’s worth these days) but giving Texas Tech everything it wanted, but the Gophers couldn’t hang onto a late lead and lost on a last-second field goal. Only seven seniors started for the Gophers, who might have something in freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood. Leading tackler in the game Brock Vereen is due back at safety next year, as is defensive end Rashede Hageman (six tackles, one sack).
  • Purdue was kind enough to leave no doubt it made the right move in letting go Danny Hope. My only other thought on that game was that it will be refreshing to evaluate their 2013 roster with the impression any apparent talents won’t be wasted like they were under the Hope regime, which was plagued by injuries and undisciplined play. There are some dangerous skill guys on the roster if they all come back to play for new head coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant.
  • Rare is the Rose Bowl that feels like an afterthought, but it was hard to take much from Wisconsin’s loss to Stanford. Kudos to the Badgers for hanging tough after falling behind 14-0, but the Cardinal did not exactly lower the boom. Both teams were very conservative, owing to the total of 37 passes thrown and 34 points scored (not that I don’t love a good slugfest and the many varieties of running plays each team came out with). The game did serve as further validation to me of the improvement of the Wisconsin front seven, a group I was not high on at all entering the season but that turned in a really nice campaign. Most of it should be back, so that is a good building block for the new coaching staff in Madison. Nine seniors started on offense or defense for the Badgers, so they will be young and/or unproven at a lot of places in 2013.

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Big Ten Division Overview: What should be the West

My preseason power ranking for what we might call the Division Formed To Accommodate Michigan (DFTAM or DFTAUM)*.

The Spartans could stand tall again this year
  1. Michigan State
  2. Nebraska
  3. Iowa
  4. Michigan
  5. Northwestern
  6. Minnesota

I am somewhat torn at the top in both divisions when it comes to measuring pure ability/experience/etc. (We’ll worry about the schedule in a future post.)

How the two pairs of teams differ in what can be viewed at this point as relative strengths and weaknesses is pretty striking.

Michigan State and Nebraska both have the potential to be elite at the quarterback position, but there are questions with both.

MSU’s Kirk Cousins was very good overall last year, but he played his worst game of the regular season against Iowa. Taylor Martinez of Nebraska probably has more upside at this point than Cousins, but he’s got a lot farther to go before he can be relied upon, too. I gave the nod to MSU for now, and that pushed the Spartans to the top of my preseason rankings.

The Spartans look stronger at running back and wide receiver due to depth, but there are young players in Lincoln who have some folks excited, so there is the potential for the scales to tip the other direction by November. Offensive line is probably a wash.

On the other side of the ball, the script is flipped. I rank Nebraska ahead of the Spartans at all three levels, but Michigan State has a chance to be better than expected on that side of the ball if some highly touted sophomores step up in their first chances at extended playing time.

I don’t think there is much separation among the next three in that division. Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern all have some major question marks but are coming off bowl seasons.

Michigan brings back the most starters, but that might not mean a whole lot for reasons that differ on each side of the ball.

On offense, the move from Rich Rodriguez’s spread-option to Al Borges’ pro-style attack figures to come with growing pains. How serious those will be remains to be seen, but they could be significant.

Defensively, the change in schemes has a much higher chance of success if for no other reason that the Wolverines can hardly be worse than last year. Maturity figures to help some of those players who learned on the fly last year, but new blood is going to be necessary at some spots. The defensive line could be a strength if five-star recruit Will Campbell gets it together after two disappointing years.  That should help the linebackers, but the secondary may be beyond repair until another recruiting season comes and goes.

Northwestern is, well, Northwestern. If Dan Persa comes back looking like he did last year before an Achilles injury, he could be the conference’s best all-around quarterback. Much of the rest of the offense is back, and while there may be few studs among the group, it looks solid overall. Ditto on the other side of the ball.

Iowa lost a lot of heart-breakers last year and a lot of starters this year, but cameos were positive for the new quarterback, running back, linebackers and defensive linemen, so rebuilding might not be as tough as it first looked.

There’s not much hope for Minnesota in the short term, but new head coach Jerry Kill will undoubtedly hope to squeeze as many big plays out of talented quarterback MarQuies Gray and reciever Da’Jon McKnight as he can while he looks to find reinforcements on the recruiting trail.

The Golden Gophers could be surprisingly competitive as those two talents on offense give them a puncher’s chance to scare a few people, but it will probably be a long year in the Twin Cities.

Spartan Stadium with the MSU campus showing its colors in the background

*Still working on a proper name for the Big Ten’s poorly conceived and even poorly named conferences. Feel free to send suggestions to mhartman [at] buckeyesports [dot] com.

Big Ten Football Pre-Spring Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Known commodities: Da’Jon McKnight (team highs of 750 yards and 10 touchdowns on 48 receptions) is a big, athletic target at wide receiver. Leading tackler Gary Tinsley is a talent at linebacker and seven other starters return on defense. Brandon Kirksey provides a formidable presence inside at defensive tackle.

Questions: Can new head coach Jerry Kill change the atmosphere in a program that was plagued by inconsistency and mistakes throughout the tenure of the fired Tim Brewster? Inconsistent four-year starting quarterback Adam Weber is gone, and his replacement, junior MarQueis Gray, has not play has not played quarterback full time since high school. Gray was the team’s No. 2 wide receiver last season. He is a dangerous runner but unknown as a passer. Three new starters are needed on the offensive line. Will a young running back step up to help (or supplant) veteran Duane Bennett?

Spring game recap: Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood’s 3-yard run produced the only touchdown in an intrasquad scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium. Kill opted to use the 15th and final day of spring practice as another practice day because his Golden Gophers need as much work as they can get while trying to put behind them the rubble of Brewster’s reign.

“It was certainly great to work with the kids over the past practices and get in our 15th and final practice today,” said Kill, formerly of Northern Illinois. “We’d like to turn around and have 15 more practices, but we can’t. I do think that there is progress being made. Infant steps. A lot of learning, a lot of kids in different situations, positions, etc. But I do think that the learning is taking place.  We got a lot repetition and hopefully they’ll continue to get better.”

Issues addressed: Kill took to some unique tactics to get his message across during spring, including having players who break team rules wear t-shirts bearing the words, “Minnesota Lophers” in pink letters.

“The big thing is that we’re making sure kids are accountable not only on the field, but off the field,” Kill explained. “If it’s missing class or being late to class, things of that nature, we’re going to make sure we take care of it immediately. Same on the field, I believe you lose more than you win because of turning the ball over, jumping offsides, dumb things. We’re pretty tough on them when they make a mistake. So far this spring, I think the kids are starting to understand that.”

As for depth chart doings, the most important development of the spring was probably the maturation of Gray. The junior from Indianapolis becomes a full-time quarterback this year after starting at wide receiver last year and taking snaps in a few special situations in 2009.

The 6-4, 229-pounder has great athleticism and a strong arm, but he is understandably raw.

“He’s really surprised me for a kid who was hurt his high school senior year and hasn’t played quarterback,” said Kill. “He’s learned very well. He’s a quick learner. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s a tremendous athlete. There’s no question about that. I’m very pleased with his progress and pleasantly surprised.”

Gray said the transition was going well.

“It feels great,” Gray said. “I haven’t played quarterback for a whole year since my junior year (of high school). Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play when I got up here, but I got a chance to learn from (four-year starter) Adam Weber, who was a great guy and a leader on and off the field, a great guy in the film room. I’m looking forward to playing quarterback this year.”

Kill praised his long-time strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein for being one of the biggest reasons for the success that his previous teams have enjoyed. He said Klein did a good job of preparing the Gophers for spring ball.

Advanced statistical revelations*: There is at least one big quirk in every set of Football Outsiders data that’s applied to each team, and Minnesota is no different. The projections for last year found the Gophers played well enough to beat Wisconsin, a Big Ten co-champion who was still trying to find its stride at that time (prior to beating Ohio State).

Brewster’s last team had an average running game but his move toward a more power-oriented attack did have one intended outcome: There were some big plays to be had, especially on passing downs, when Weber could hook up with McKnight or Gray down the field. Tight end Eric Lair was also a weapon at times.

The defense was relatively efficient against the run but gave up too many big plays, and it was all-around dreadful against the pass. A nonexistent pass rush did not help matters in the least.

Pro prospects**:  Lair is a good blocker at the first and second level and can be a threat in the passing game, especially vertically.

McKnight might not be an NFL guy (again, I think these evaluations come down a little on the harsh side), but he has a good size/speed combo for college.

Tinsley is a gamer who plays hard but is limited physically (He looks bigger than his measurables to me). Another good college guy regardless of pro prospects.

Cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who converted from wide receiver, has good speed and burst. He can close and cover. Though a bit raw, he is tough to separate from in coverage.

Issues remaining/other thoughts: This may surprise you, but there could be two lasting positives from the Brewster era that benefit this team. One, his efforts to move from a spread offense to a pro-style attack (though they probably expedited his trip out of Minneapolis) probably leave the squad relatively ready to embrace Kill’s run-oriented style. Two, the somewhat brief uptick in recruiting that Brewster was able to engineer might show out in a couple of spots and make the Gophers more competitive this fall. Or it might not.

Defensive end is a big question mark, but they have some tackles to build around.

On offense, it will be interesting to see if redshirt freshmen running backs Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards can step up and add anything. Gray’s running ability is tantalizing, but he needs a complement.

*SBNation has spent the summer previewing teams across the country using Football Outsiders’ advanced stats. They’ve started a movement not unlike SABRmetrics in baseball, and while I don’t agree with all of the tenets they are establishing, I find them often informative and always interesting. This is just my takeaway from the lengthy preview for this squad. 
**These are culled from evaluations published by Wes Bunting of The National Football Post. He goes in-depth on a handful of draft-eligible players on every team, and I have significantly boiled them down, so I recommend you read the whole thing. 
 

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